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Emma Carpenter, the owner of Old City's soon-to-shutter Three Sirens, has advice for shoppers looking to keep their favorite Philly store in business: "Know that just because somebody's doors are open doesn't mean they're necessarily doing well," she told Philadelphia magazine's shopping blog, Shoppist, last week. "There needs to be better promotion about retail down here," Carpenter added, astonished to see some of her newest customers walk through Three Siren's door like they'd just crossed a threshold into another retail dimension. "It's not like this popped up two or three years ago."
What made Shoppist's post particularly interesting was the reaction of commenters, each with a different take on why Old City's retail corridor has yet to become synonymous with Philadelphia shopping. Some blame parking (of course), some point a finger at a lack of advertising and promotion on the part of the Old City neighborhood itself, while others blame a shopper's unwillingness to shop outside the familiarity of chain retail—not to mention outside a two-block radius of their home.
With a surprising number of high-profile, seemingly successful boutiques closing their doors over the past few months, a nagging question has surfaced in our blogger brains: Is there a magic formula for succeeding in Philly retail? What sets a stalwart apart from a flash-in-the-pan? We asked a handful of Philadelphia's most popular indie retailers from all over the city to speculate why their doors remain open while others fall by the wayside. Among the shopkeeps' responses, the same advice arose again and again, linking Philly's successful business owners; we're calling this common thread the 10 Golden Rules for succeeding in Philly retail. If you want to open your own shop within city limits—and stay open—you better listen up.
1) Your store should be your life.
"I think the reason most small stores don't survive is lack of discipline," says Ann Gitter, owner of the 47-year-old Philly fashion boutique Knit Wit. "It's a seven-day-a-week, 24-7 business." Metro Men's Tom Longo, whose popular men's shop recently relocated to a bigger, better space on East Passyunk Avenue, concurs: "The old nine-to-five that was the general operating procedure in the past is truly in the past. People work extended schedules and odd hours. I have to be open when it is convenient for my customers to shop. That means I have to be open late in the evenings, late on Saturdays, and most of the day on Sundays." If you're not behind the counter/crunching numbers/counting inventory most days of the week, then something is probably amiss.
2) Plan to compromise on a location.
Sky-high rental rates drive indie boutiques out of popular retail districts (ahem, Walnut Street). "A small business needs to find the next hot neighborhood before the rents increase, or settle for a slightly less desirable spot," advises Elaine Tse, owner of Tselaine, a 350-square-foot accessories boutique with a prime location at the corner of 20th and Walnut. (Forging an amicable relationship with your landlord won't hurt your cause either, Tse adds.) "Once your rent reaches 10% of gross annual sales, you are going to face difficult times," notes Nana Goldberg, president of Chestnut Street's longstanding I. Goldberg Army & Navy. Don't sign a lease for a space you won't be able to afford.
3) Expect Walnut Street's "mallification" to be a tough pill to swallow—but keep soldiering on.
"[Walnut Street] creates a sort of bottleneck effect where shoppers who aren't too familiar with the area see this big cluster of popular retailers on one strip and assume that's where all the shopping in Philly is," says Alina Alter, whose boutique, Aoki, occupies a space between Chestnut and Sansom on 22nd Street. "On the other hand I think a small group of consumers has remained really loyal to the independent businesses and purposely sought us out, so ironically maybe it's been a blessing in disguise in some small way." While indie stores tend to be overshadowed by the chains, there are shoppers out there who'd prefer to shop local; you just need to come up with a way to reach them. (Hint: Plug your store on social media—and do it frequently.)
4) Offer something that can't be found elsewhere.
Better still, develop your own in-house brand or label, and develop appealing brick-and-mortar and online shopping experiences to match. "It's a whole culture and package," says Steve Grasse of his brand/Old City store, Art in the Age. "We have unique products. We have unique content. Unique exhibitions." You need to be passionate about what you're selling, as well; shoppers will find this passion infectious. " If you've ever been to the store, you know that we can talk at length about all of the stuff that we sell," says Liz Sieber, owner of Pine Street's Omoi Zakka Shop. "We've made it our purpose to look all around the world for products that feel refreshing and satisfying to use and I think we have a great customer base that sees the value in our work." Omoi's beautifully-executed online store and blog are shining examples of how a shop's online presence can drive sales.
5) Do your homework.
Be certain that there's a demand for what you want to sell. Do your research ahead of time, and be sure to create a business plan. If your business is floundering, don't be too quick to abandon your initial goal. "Cannibalization is a problem for little shopping districts—so many stores selling the same items," says Duross & Langel co-founder Steve Duross. "For me the difference between success and failure is my ability to adapt to changing circumstances while maintaining quality, value, and integrity." Seek out grants and funding from the city wherever possible. "Philadelphia gives entrepreneurs every opportunity to make money," Duross says.
6) Don't expect overnight success.
Strive for long-term sustainability as opposed to instant profitability. "I think anyone can be in business for a short time," says Tselaine's Elaine Tse. "It's difficult to be great for a long time." One way to stay profitable? A reliance on cold, hard facts. "Making decisions on a whim or hearsay will not yield the benefits of a well developed strategy," advises Metro Men's Tom Longo. "The best thing I ever did was to invest in a Point of Sale system that tracks the critical components of my business. I use that data to make informed buying decisions," says Longo. Be patient. "It takes three years to get your business up and running to its maximum potential," says Elena Brennan, owner of the seven-year-old Queen Village shoe shop Bus Stop. What's more, you should expect to encounter hurdles along the way. L&I, high business taxes—even street construction will become a thorn in your side. "Honestly, the biggest issue we have faced over the past few years is all the freaking road work that has been going on in Old City," shares Art in the Age's Steven Grasse. "After a sustained period of traffic patterns being altered, people's habits change. I think this has been particularly hard for the boutiques in Old City, which are all independents." From broken water pipes to heating issues in your shop, shit happens. Have money set aside for incidentals. Sarah Lewis, the owner of Fishtown jewelry boutique Adorn, recommends selling online and accepting custom work to generate extra income.
7) Change with your customer and the times.
"The product mix from our first year as a bricks and mortar store is very different from what we carry today," says Elaine Tse. "To expect our customer's tastes to remain constant would be a huge folly." Chestnut Street's Knit Wit has adapted to the era of online shopping by selling its designer womenswear on websites Farfetch and Amazon. Evolution is key.
8) Buddy up with your neighbors.
To increase foot traffic, many shop owners collaborate to organize shopping events that span across an entire neighborhood. Case in point: Northern Liberties' annual Holiday Shopping Spree, which provides increasing discounts as shoppers make purchases at participating NoLibs boutiques. Neighborhood shopping events create a unique, community-driven experience that can't be replicated by a mall. "We get involved with the different events in the neighborhood and promote events that happen in the neighborhood, even if it has nothing to do shopping at my store," says Mey Shou, the owner of Swag, a three-year-old gift boutique in NoLibs. "I think taking time to invest in this neighborhood is a factor of why we're still around."
9) It takes an army.
"I can't imagine the pressure of running a shop single-handedly, and even though it seems expensive or intimidating to hire help, it's such a worthwhile investment," notes Sara Selepouchin, owner of East Passyunk Avenue boutique Occasionette. (Hire staff that represents you, the owner, when you're not at the store.) You can't do this by yourself. Once the energy and excitement surrounding your store's debut fizzles, you'll run out of steam tout suite.
10) Excellent customer service is your best defense against showrooming.
If your staff is unaccommodating, your customer won't think twice about buying your product from a different retailer online. Take a genuine interest in establishing a relationship with your client base. "Whether it's offering free refreshments on a daily basis, or going that extra mile to ensure a garment is altered just in time for an event, the idea is to make the customers feel special and appreciated," says Metro Men's Tom Longo. You should be grateful for every single customer that sets foot through your door. Word of mouth spreads like wildfire; don't stab yourself in the foot with a couple negative Yelp reviews.
We want to hear from you: What issues do you, the consumer, find the most disconcerting about Philly retail? Do you agree with the above rules? Sound off in the comments.
· Three Sirens Boutique Is Closing [Shoppist]
· Where to Shop in Old City: The Definitive Guide [Racked Philly]